Tonawanda Coke Soil Study Progress Update (January 2019)

Gloved hands using a tool to scoop soil into a glass jar.

A soil sample is taken in 2018. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Release Date: January 16, 2019 This content is archived.



The Tonawanda Coke Soil Study investigates how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant has impacted soil in surrounding communities. A federal judge ordered Tonawanda Coke Corp. to fund the $711,000 study, to be led by the University at Buffalo, after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The study team is collecting and analyzing hundreds of soil samples in neighborhoods that may be in the path of emissions from the plant. Scientists are testing these samples for an array of chemicals, and seeking to determine which pollutants may have originated from Tonawanda Coke.

Results will benefit communities in Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and North Buffalo by providing them with information about what chemicals are in their soil, how widespread any pollution may be, and whether these pollutants may have originated at the Tonawanda Coke plant. This knowledge is the first step in understanding whether a clean-up is needed, and where.

The community has played a major role in the study since it began. A community advisory committee meets regularly, and many residents have attended public meetings organized by the study team. Twenty thousand flyers have been distributed door-to-door in the neighborhoods involved, alerting residents of opportunities to get their questions answered or opportunities engage with the research team.

The soil study is led by Joseph Gardella Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Chemistry, who has about 40 years of experience studying the environmental impact of industrial pollutants. The study team includes researchers from UB and SUNY Fredonia — including Tammy Milillo, PhD, UB research assistant professor of chemistry, and Michael Milligan, PhD, SUNY Fredonia professor of chemistry, both of whom are experts in environmental chemistry — as well as community partners.

Multiple measures are in place to ensure the study meets high scientific standards. Soil analysis is being conducted by ALS Environmental, a laboratory certified by New York State to perform environmental testing, along with UB and SUNY Fredonia researchers who have many years of expertise in environmental chemistry and employ strict quality control procedures.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) review and provide feedback on the study’s methodologies and findings.

Preliminary regions of interest identified

In 2017, in Phase I of the study, UB scientists worked with community members in southeastern Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda, and North Buffalo to collect more than 180 soil samples from neighborhoods that may have been in the path of emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant. These samples were then sent to ALS Environmental — a laboratory certified by New York State to conduct environmental testing — which tested the samples for a variety of chemicals.

Through an analysis of results, the soil study team identified three geographic areas where a number of soil samples taken contained higher levels of selected pollutants than in the directly surrounding region. The three areas are:

  • An area in the Town of Tonawanda surrounding the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant, and focused on the area to the east of the plant
  • An area in the City of Tonawanda northeast of the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant
  • An area in Grand Island west of the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant

The contaminants found varied by area, and included chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cyanide, or heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic.

A number of soil samples in these areas of interest contained concentrations of certain contaminants that exceeded the EPA or DEC’s soil cleanup objectives (SCOs). (An SCO is the EPA or DEC’s guideline for the maximum level of a chemical that should be found in soil after a successful cleanup.) See the last section of this fact sheet for information on health concerns.

In response to Phase I findings, Phase II of the study began in 2018. In this phase, approximately 130 additional soil samples were taken from in and around the three preliminary regions of interest, as well as from schools, parks and churches. Findings from this second round of sampling will be used to refine the boundaries for the areas of interest, providing a more complete picture of how the contaminants are distributed in the community.

Scientists have also analyzed publicly available data on the pollutants in soil on industrial sites within the study area.

Potential origins of the pollutants

Because pollutants have many possible origins, the presence of chemicals alone is not evidence that they originated at Tonawanda Coke. PAHs, for example, are associated with the production of foundry coke but also with a variety of other industrial and combustion processes. Grilling, bonfires, car and truck exhaust, and cigarette smoke all produce PAHs.

Moving forward, scientists at UB and SUNY Fredonia will use advanced analytical and statistical techniques to study whether PAHs and other pollutants may have originated from the Tonawanda Coke plant. This process is called source apportionment.

Researchers’ work will take into account a variety of factors, such as geography, prevailing winds, and the chemical make-up of specimens collected from the Tonawanda Coke plant. As part of Tonawanda Coke’s federal sentence, the company was ordered to provide the soil study with a soil sample from the plant site, a sample of the firm’s coke product, and a sample of air emissions from the factory. These samples may have specific identifying features that could help scientists determine whether nearby soil pollution originated from Tonawanda Coke.

Final results from the study may be released as soon as 2019, after the soil study team has completed its analysis.

Community members with questions about the study can contact Joseph Gardella Jr. at

Possible health impacts

It is important to note that the discovery of contaminants in the soil does not necessarily mean that the chemicals identified pose an immediate danger to the public. Within the study area, concentrations of contaminants discovered were generally below the DEC’s residential SCOs.

Because health effects of environmental exposure to chemicals are dependent not only on the concentrations of pollutants found in soil, but also on a wide range of other factors, the soil study team cannot comment on specific health risks related to soil study findings. Factors that can impact health risks include, but are not limited to, people’s age and health, and how often people come into contact with contaminated soil and under what conditions.

Soil samples are collected with the permission of property owners, who are provided with information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on general health risks associated with chemicals found on their properties, and on whom to contact if they have concerns.

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.